In the first pages of Oxford professor Nicola Gardini’s unapologetic paean to Latin literary craft, he defends the ancient Roman tongue against the perennial charge that it’s dead—or at best, zombified. “Latin is alive,” he pronounces, “and it’s more alive than what we tell our friend at the café or our sweetheart on the phone.” For Gardini, the metric of whether Latin still has a pulse is not the annual tally of spoken Latin conferences or the headcount of the schoolchildren chanting the forms of the third declension. Mere speech, he paradoxically contends, is the ephemeral substratum of a lifeless lingua, for “in this very moment the entire planet is jabbering, amassing an immeasurable heap of words. And yet those words are already gone. Another heap has already formed, also destined to vanish in an instant.”
It’s tempting to see Gardini’s claim as some clever Nietzschean inversion: “No, English, you’re the real dead language.” But Long Live Latin is more than Oxford sneering at contemporary chatter. It has a real argument: that we can find the lifeblood of Latin in those hushed volumes of Ovid and Petronius, of Sallust and Juvenal, all living because they “express spiritual nobility through linguistic excellence.” The book’s regular citations of Dante and Shakespeare, too, show how “linguistic excellence” is not the domain of the ancient Romans alone—these later authors are as undead as Catullus and Cicero. Not a defense of Latin per se, then, Gardini’s book pins the immortality of Latin precisely on its literary sublimity. And in our present era, an interminable Groundhog Day of regrettable tweets and focus-grouped bromides, Gardini’s careful exposition of Virgilian allusion and Tacitean abruptness indeed feels salutary, necessary, and yes, alive.
Undoubtedly, many will look at Gardini’s literary tribute as a totem of privilege and snobbishness: the high over the low, the refined over the primitive, the elite over the vulgar. Others, too, will see a willful omission of the violent imperialism underlying Roman culture. Such accusations would not be without merit, and it’s strange that Gardini accepts how “individual authors are only embodiments of [their] empirical conditions” but tells us so little about the conditions that brought about, for example, the Augustan leisure class. But if it is true that our own language is “signifying less and less, sounding more and more like white noise, like traffic, or like certain politicians,” then perhaps it would do us well to trade Twitter’s bird for Catullus’s sparrow and to listen attentively to the slow, deep heartbeat of latinitas.